County, school officials discuss high birth rates

February 05, 2005|by TARA REILLY

WASHINGTON COUNTY - With a Washington County teenage birth rate that's consistently among the highest in the state, Health Officer William Christoffel thinks it's time for the local public school system to counsel teens about the use of condoms, birth control pills and other forms of contraception to reduce the number of teens getting pregnant.

"I would like to see a broader approach," said Christoffel, who works for the Washington County Health Department. "Whether we like it or not, they are having sex."

Christoffel said abstinence should be encouraged, but that contraception should be talked about in school to students who are sexually active.


The use of contraceptives would reduce the number of teens getting pregnant and protect them from sexually transmitted diseases, Christoffel said.

He wants the Washington County Commissioners and the Board of Education to make the matter a priority and support open discussions about contraception in the schools, he said.

Some County Commissioners disagree.

Commissioners Vice President William J. Wivell said birth control discussions should be held in the home by parents.

"I don't think we should be out preaching about birth control ... in our school system," Wivell said.

Wivell said he thought Christoffel would be able to come up with reasons to push abstinence among teens, such as focusing on the high rate of sexually transmitted diseases among young people.

"That alone should be enough to convince teens to abstain," Wivell said.

Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said he didn't know enough about the matter to comment on it.

"It should be a priority, but I don't agree with it being taught in schools," Commissioner John C. Munson said. "I think it's up to the parents to take care of at home."

School Board President Paul Bailey, however, said birth control is an issue for the school system.

"I feel that since it impacts school-aged youngsters that there is a moral - an obligation on the part of the board to address it in some fashion," Bailey said. "If they're not being addressed at home, it has to be addressed somewhere or the problem doesn't get any better."

The Washington County Board of Education has barred making condoms available in school as well as encouraging the use of contraceptives and offers minimal sex education programs in fifth, eighth and tenth grades, Christoffel said.

Christoffel said he didn't think discussions in school about birth control measures have been accepted by those in county leadership roles for two reasons.

"In part, it's avoiding the issue," he said. "In part, it's (because of) cultural or religious beliefs."

Ed Masood, supervisor of arts, health/physical education and athletics, said discussions about condoms and other forms of birth control come up during sex education classes at the high school level if students ask questions about those topics.

Teachers, however, are limited to responding to the question asked and cannot elaborate.

For example, Masood said that if a student asks a teacher what a condom is, a teacher can answer that question, but is not permitted to discuss the effectiveness of condoms, because the student didn't ask that question.

The school system's abstinence-based sex education programs meet the state's regulations and are effective, Masood said.

"We're providing the information that we need to provide," Masood said.

Furthermore, Masood said students also could visit their schools' nurses if they have questions about such topics.

The county's birth rate statistics consistently bounce up and down from year to year. In 2003, 185 Washington County females ages 15 to 19 gave birth, Christoffel said.

"This community has not accepted teenage pregnancy as an issue for the community," Christoffel said.

"I would like to see a commitment made by the Board of Education that this is a priority ... and that the County Commissioners accept this as an issue that needs to be addressed, and that the community needs to say that this is an issue that we can't afford both on a humanitarian basis and an economic basis," Christoffel said.

Christoffel said pregnant teens tend to drop out of school, become single mothers and live in poverty, leaving taxpayers with the burden of supporting them through public assistance benefits, medical care expenses and other costs.

He also said children of teen mothers are more likely to have behavioral and delinquency problems and failing grades. They're also more likely to be abused or neglected or placed in foster care, he said.

Wivell said Washington County Public Schools should be focusing on teaching students to read and write, not about contraception.

"You can't expect Big Brother to address everything," Wivell said. "It all goes back to morality.

Statistics about teen births in Washington County

Washington County Health Officer William Christoffel said 185 county females ages 15 to 19 gave birth in 2003.

· The Washington County birth rate that same year was 45 births per every 1,000 females ages 15 to 19. That gave Washington County the fourth highest rate among the 24 jurisdictions in the state, behind Baltimore City and Dorchester and Caroline counties, according to statistics from the Health Department.

· The Washington County rate is higher than the state's rate of 33 births per 1,000 females between the ages of 15 to 19 and the national rate of 41.7 for teens in the same age group.

· The county's birth rate for white teens ages 15 to 19 was 44.1, the highest in the state among white teens.

· The county's birth rate in 2003 for black females ages 15 to 19 was 65.5, a rate that ranked eighth in the state among black teens.

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